Agent001 recounts his laptop buying experiences
In the last two years the personal technology space has seen tremendous growth both in terms of demand and in terms of variety. It pleases me greatly to see folks actually taking the time and patience to learn about the product they want to purchase, instead of blindly making an uninformed purchase decision. Besides cell phones, PDAs and PMPs, if I were to pick one product category that is hot, it’d have to be laptops. Many queries directed to me are from readers who wish to buy a notebook for a certain purpose, or based on a particular configuration. Students want something on a frugal budget that allows them to complete their assignments, surf the Internet, and take notes during lectures. Engineers want a configuration that will allow them to run Visual Studio, or Java, and surf the Internet, or even play the odd game. Others may have specific requirements—like a good integrated webcamera to chat with loved ones abroad, or a notebook that plays 3D games with most of the bells and whistles enabled. A large bunch of users are confused as to whether to even buy a notebook or opt for a desktop PC instead. Their confusion is understandable—a decent desktop PC can be assembled for Rs 25,000 or thereabouts, which is the same price at which you can pick up and entry level notebook. Users are even willing to up their budgets and pay more for a notebook, their reason, notebooks are more of a lifestyle symbol (if not a status symbol), and they’re portable. It’s cool to be seen with a notebook, and the whole image of notebooks being expensive, drool-worthy devices takes your status to a whole new high. Even though laptops are common nowadays they’re still viewed as a novelty by most people and this is one of the main factors behind their speedy adoption. Of course it’s a much needed tool for the business and executive cadre of user.
Regarding the whole desktop vs. notebook argument, I’m a firm believer in both devices. For me a notebook is a necessity when computing on the move, or attending a press conference to take down notes, or to communicate with office folk and access mails and such when a PC in unavailable. But when I have my desktop PC in front of me—my notebook is forgotten. Both devices are meant to co-exist peacefully, and home users should actually see whether they really need the portability of a notebook before buying one. In terms of performance and ergonomics, a desktop is at least two times the performance of a notebook, my suggestion is to buy a notebook only if you need portable computing. For someone who intends to use his computer on his desk every night after coming home from office, a notebook PC is a total waste—a desktop is much better suited for such tasks. I also recommend you skip the notion of buying a notebook just to be cool—it’s ludicrous.
A so called gaming notebook needs a fast graphics card, and implementing such a graphics solutions into a notebook, where heat dissipation and product size are significant factors, is expensive—Rs 75,000 at least. I do not consider Dell’s XPS 1530 to be a gaming notebook—for one, the NVIDIA GeForce 8600GT video solution in this notebook is strictly a low-end solution.
There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to notebook components, and visits around the various electronics malls around Mumbai left me with one impression—a lot has to be done to educate consumers. Posing as a newbie I was surprised to see some misleading tactics used by even large vendors. For example a notebook with an NVIDIA GeForce motherboard (GeForce 6150 chipset) had a bold sticker saying “NVIDIA graphics”. True, but to most users “NVIDIA graphics” or “Graphics by ATI” means an additional graphics card—whereas this notebook had just an integrated graphics chip. This was an issue with notebooks with ATI onboard solutions as well, and users wanting a graphics card should look for a sticker with the name of the graphics solution mentioned on it like GeForce 8400GS or Radeon X2400 Pro. Most of the sales reps cannot help you either—and they’ll expound on the hard disk size, and choice of OS bundled when asked about differences between two similar looking notebooks, instead of talking about processors and memory. A notebook is a solution, not something you build like a PC, and considering that even I got misled at one point, its imaginable how first time buyers often get duped—whether intentionally or unintentionally on the part of the vendor. When looking at models, it’s important to get a hands-on feel, after all you need to use the device regularly. For example a tiny keypad may be a hindrance for those with large hands, or maybe the keypad feedback may not be to your liking. The layout of the keys themselves is also important.
Intel’s Core 2 Duo processor is the most widespread and 80 per cent of all the notebooks I saw had this family of processor. With falling CPU prices even entry level notebooks have given up the cheaper Celeron and Pentium Dual Core processors for the faster Core 2 Duo. A few of the smaller notebook have also started featuring Intel’s Atom processor which is a highly power efficient solution, and powers most tiny notebooks. AMDs Turion X2 (dual core) processors are also available, but in a very limited notebook models. The Core 2 Duo family is very large—the T5xxx series are suitable for regular office and Internet use PCs. The faster T7xxx series are suitable for multimedia PCs, although the newer T8xxx and T9xxx processors are faster and run cooler owing to the smaller 45nm fabrication process opposed to the 65nm fabrication for the 7xxx series. Unless you want to game or do audio/video encoding the T8xxx and T9xxx processors are overkill. The L7xxx are low power consumption processors at par with the T5xxx series for performance, and the U7xxx (ultra low power consumption) are for those who want less processing power but more battery life. For memory, I recommend at least 2 GB for all users—notebook memory is dirt cheap. Gamers should look for around 3 GB. Keep in mind that Windows Vista is memory hog. Also upgrading a notebooks memory isn’t as simple as upgrading a PC, so beware. Upgrading a CPU is even more tedious.
In terms of usability, some notebooks offer tablet PC features. This basically means a touchscreen that can pivot and swivel.
Most of the tablet notebooks are really compact i.e. 12.1 inch screen size—a plus, if size is a factor for you. If you’re looking for something really compact, there are a whole new bunch of notebooks from ASUS, MSI, HP and Acer which offer Intel Atom processors, one or two gigabytes of RAM, 80 to 160 GB hard drives with exceptionally small screens—eight to ten inches. These are very compact and lightweight as a result. However, if you type a lot, the keyboards on such compact notebooks may be somewhat cramped. For those looking for compact powerhouses with spacious keypads the 12.1 and 13.3 inch categories are worth looking at, although Sony does have an 11.1 inch model which is also very compact.
A 15.4 inch notebook is usually considered de facto for anyone looking at a notebook, although for me these notebooks seem bulky. I’d prefer a 14.1 inch screen, which offers the same components at no added cost, but is lighter and smaller. For those looking at a large screen notebook (desktop replacement) and they don’t intend to cart it around, 17-inch laptops are also available, although most of these are quite pricey, simply because they have high-end configurations. Acer does have some non-standard screen sizes—their Aspire 6920 and 8920G (16 inches and 18.4 inches respectively).
You must remember that a notebook is a consumer product, much like a plasma TV, or a home theatre system, and warranties play an important role. All brands offer warranties but you have to consider things like availability of service centres, time taken to respond, the nature of the warranty and its duration, and even the quality of service. The latter point is something that existing consumers of that brand can share with you. All information is helpful in some way or another.
Among the brands available I came across Sony, HP/Compaq, Lenovo, Acer, LG, Toshiba, Fujitsu and Dell. Dell is unique in certain aspects as they allow you to configure the laptop with your choice of components as well as buy preconfigured notebooks. If you know what you’re doing, configuring your own notebook is very beneficial, as you can opt for the correct combination of components.
HPs DV series and Sony’s Vaio are some of the most attractive looking notebooks around, although I felt HPs DV2000 and DV6000 series, (their multimedia notebook series), are the most attractive with their satin smooth finishes and the great-looking artwork on the lids. The Compaq notebooks are priced lower than the HPs (in general) and the higher models sport the same slick finishes. These make good buys for someone on a budget.
Some Sony Vaio’s are really beautiful, some are mediocre looking. Dell’s Inspiron series are available on display, but their XPS series, which offer high-end performance parts, aren’t. You’ll have to contact Dell India if you want an XPS notebook, and you can configure these on Dell’s Web site for their pricing. Lenovo’s ThinkPad series are very light, very well built, and targeted at businessmen, while their Y series are for home users. Fujitsu offers mostly business notebooks with charcoal grey finishes that may not attract—however, for the corporate fraternity, these are light and rugged. LG has some nice looking notebooks, mostly finished in variations of white. ASUS is a surprise entrant for me, because they’re mostly renowned for their motherboards and graphics cards. Nonetheless they have some really attractive, albeit highly-priced models. The table below lists the models I came across with their prices and basic specifications: